New York Health Commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker on Friday defended the state’s decision in March to make nursing homes take residents from hospitals that had the coronavirus, blaming most of the virus’ spread on staff members.
The directive, issued on March 25, prohibited nursing homes from denying admission or readmission to residents infected with Covid-19. The directive also banned nursing homes from testing patients before entry, NBC News reported. The policy was later reversed in May.
Zucker said on Friday that, at the time, New York’s coronavirus hospitalization rate was growing “at a staggering pace” and capacity in the state’s intensive-care units was running thin. By allowing the residents to return to the nursing homes, it helped protect the health-care system from collapsing, he said.
“You can only review a decision with the facts that you had at the time,” Zucker said during a press briefing alongside New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo. “And with the facts that we had at that moment in time, it was the correct decision from a public health point of view.”
Zucker said the decision was based on recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued at the time that said nursing homes should admit any residents they normally would admit, including people diagnosed with Covid-19, as long as precautions were in place.
A CDC spokesperson wasn’t immediately available to comment on Zucker’s remarks.
“What if we hadn’t done March 25? Hospital beds that ended up saving lives would not have been available because they would’ve been occupied by someone who could’ve been discharged,” Zucker said. “We made the right public health decision at the time and, faced with the same facts, we would make the same decisions again.”
The Covid-19 patients who returned to the nursing homes were likely not contagious, according to the CDC’s guidance at the time, and were separated from other residents. Zucker added that state law requires nursing homes to deny residents if they don’t have the ability to properly care for them.
“We simply said you cannot deny admission based on Covid status,” he said. “We never said you must accept, we said you can’t deny.”
The comments from the state’s top health official come as the Cuomo administration faces bipartisan criticism over its handling of nursing home Covid-19 deaths. An investigation from New York Attorney General Letitia James published in late January found the New York Department of Health underreported Covid-19 deaths in nursing homes by as much as 50%.
On Friday, Cuomo and Zucker said most of the virus’ spread wasn’t because of the Covid-positive resident, but it was coming from the staff members caring for them.
“Covid came in to the nursing homes from the staff. They got it at home, they got it in the grocery store, they went to work and they brought in Covid,” Cuomo said.
Cuomo has aggressively defended the state’s count, however, saying that those deaths were counted as part of fatalities at hospitals, not at nursing homes. The Democratic governor has apologized for “creating a void” by not providing enough information fast enough and not fighting back against misinformation.
“Twitter, bogus reports, become a reality at one point,” Cuomo said. “Social media, 24-hour news stations, if you don’t correct it, it gets repeated… and then people think it’s true.”
In August, federal prosecutors under the Trump administration requested information regarding New York’s nursing home deaths, which Cuomo has criticized as being politically motivated. The state legislature also asked for similar information, but the Cuomo administration put that request on hold to focus on the one from the Department of Justice, the governor said.
One of Cuomo’s top aides, Melissa DeRosa, reportedly told Democratic lawmakers that the governor’s administration “froze” on their request because they were worried the data would be used against them by the Department of Justice, the Associated Press reported.
DeRosa has since tried to clarify her comments, saying in a statement last week that she was trying to explain to the lawmakers that they need to focus on the Justice Department’s request first.
“We were comprehensive and transparent in our responses to the DOJ, and then had to immediately focus our resources on the second wave and vaccine rollout,” DeRosa said in the statement. “As I said on a call with legislators, we could not fulfill their request as quickly as anyone would have liked.”